The Judgement of Paris: What We Do In Paris Is Secret by A Lab On Fire
What We Do In Paris Is Secret is a tantalizing name, no doubt about it, as is A Lab On Fire, the house that launched it last year. They're not cranking out dozens of scents annually, for which they get credit: instead, they're hiring name perfumers — Sophia Grojsman, Thierry Wasser — to produce high-end fragrances (currently $110 for a 60-mL bottle) and apparently limiting themselves to three a year, which these days is an extraordinary show of restraint.
What We Do In Paris Is Secret was created by Dominique Ropion, who is also responsible for the literally flawless Casual Friday, cruelly discontinued (I have a big bottle which should last me years), and the baffling but much-loved Kenzo Jungle L'Elephant, as well as a number of other scents you may of heard of: Ysatis and Amarige for Givenchy, Mugler's Alien, and Dior Pure Poison, to name a few.
In the last twenty years, the dominant expression of fragrance for women has been the fruity floral, and presumably as a consequence of this, most of Ropion's assignments, no different from any other perfumer's, have been in this genre, which explains why he has had a hand in such popular unpleasantnesses as Gucci Accenti, Calvin Klein Euphoria, Very Irresistible by Givenchy, Paco Rabanne's Lady Million, and others it is best not to think too hard about. What We Do In Paris is a Secret is a heavy, sweet, cloying, chemical fruity floral as obnoxious as any I've ever smelled. With its radioactively pinging top note and its thick, mucky middle, it is horrible: just bringing the vial near my nose makes me wince. It's so dreadful that twenty minutes after putting in on the backs my hands (as I always do), I had to scrub it off. I could still smell it, so I scrubbed my hands again a few minutes later. Even then I couldn't stand the remnants of it, so I scrubbed a third time. I was finally reduced to spraying myself with CSP Vanille Abricot, something potent, something with covering power. A lot of people commenting on Luckyscent and Fragrantica just adore it, so go ahead, listen to them. But for the love of god, get a sample first, and try it out near soap and running water.
Keep Going: Etat Libre d'Orange Like This (eventually)
I would like to tell you a meandering batch of stories about art and music and love which will eventually tie into the review at hand in a sidelong manner. If you want to skip all that and get right to my opinion of Etat Libre d'Orange's Tilda Swinton-themed fragrance Like This, just scroll way down until you see the bottle again: I certainly wouldn't blame you.
Last spring I was visiting my mother in Ontario for a couple of weeks: she had been widowed the previous fall and wanted some company (and also someone to do chores: she's not getting any younger).
Reading the Toronto Star one morning, I discovered that an arts festival called Luminato in Toronto was opening with a revival of Philip Glass' pivotal, revolutionary opera Einstein on the Beach, which I had been listening to for at least a quarter of a century and of course desperately wanted to see, not least because I knew that I would never get another chance to see it: it's a huge, expensive production which has been revived only a few times since its first production in the mid-1970s. But a trip to see it was out of the question: we had already planned and paid for a trip to Tokyo that fall, and we couldn't possibly squeeze in another trip.
I knew my husband Jim would find out about the festival, because he reads just about as much as I do (which is to say "just about everything"), so I texted him to say, "Einstein on the Beach is being performed in Toronto this summer AND WE'RE NOT GOING." And Jim texted back, "We'll see," because if he thinks there's a thing that will make me happy, he wants to find a way to make that thing happen.
A couple of days later, he e-mailed me to say, in essence, "I had a really bad day at work and I have to get out of this awful city so I booked us flights and a hotel and got tickets to Einstein on June 8th so we're going."
It's not the first time Jim has done such a thing. One day in the spring of 1999, I came home from work and he said, "Have you heard of a new Philip Glass chamber opera called 'Monsters of Grace'?" I had. "Well, we're going." He had arranged the whole thing, ordered the tickets and booked the flights and hotel, knowing that I would love the experience.
A lot of people hated "Monsters of Grace". I'm not one of them. At the end, I didn't even stop to think about it, but flung myself to my feet for a standing ovation. There weren't many others standing along with me (and in fact I believe some people were booing), but I didn't care: I loved it, and still listen to the music to this day.
I met Jim in the fall of 1987, and the attraction was instantaneous and intense. He was 27 and magnetically appealing, catnip to women and men alike: the women were out of luck, but with men he'd had what turned out to be a tumultuous and eventful romantic life, something with which I could never compete. I was 24 and had had exactly one previous romantic relationship, so clearly I was an oasis of stability (or a fount of neurosis). I was I suppose decent-looking though not outstandingly attractive, but I can talk a fox out of a hen-house, and I have wide-ranging interests: "If you can't be rich or beautiful, be fascinating" is advice that has served a lot of men and women well over the centuries. (Cleopatra's legendary beauty might be just that: it's more than possible that she was rather plain, and it was her discourse and manner that seduced Marc Antony and Julius Caesar, among others.)
A few weeks after we got involved, Jim invited me out for dinner to meet two of his co-workers, Karin and Adele. I imagine we had been talking about art and politics, among other things, but the one thing I clearly recall discussing was "Einstein on the Beach", which I had been listening to pretty obsessively, as is my way. While I had absented myself from the table near the end of the meal, Karin pinched Jim's arm hard and said, "If you let this one get away, I will kill you," which is possibly the most flattering thing anyone has ever said about me.
He didn't let me get away.
After twenty-six and a half years, Jim and I still find things to talk about. In fact, if you asked me the secret to a happy marriage, I'd say, "Be interesting to one another." We have drastically different tastes in most areas: while there's a bit of overlap, we hardly listen to the same music at all, we have different taste in TV shows and books, movies and theatre. Jim likes opera well enough, but mostly only comedies, whereas I like pretty much all of it. But that's all good! It gives you more things to talk about!
One area in which our tastes align almost completely is the world of art. We both prefer relatively modern art, mostly things from the last 150 years or so: the best exhibition we ever saw was the blissful Pop Art show at Montréal's Musée des Beaux Arts in the fall of 1992. And we both loved the movie Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which I beg you to watch, even if you think you don't like modern art or performance art: the film is profoundly moving. And if you don't like it, well, that gives you something to talk about, doesn't it? (As long as you have something intelligent to say and don't sneer at it like the half-witted Fox News reporter in the film, who clearly only likes art that's hanging on a wall, presumably something painted by Trisha Romance or Thomas Kinkade, something that matches the couch.)
Since we live in a small, rather provincial city, the only way we can experience everything we want to, all the operas and museums and movies and cultures, is by travelling, and luckily that's one more thing we have in common: we both love to travel. We're not rich, but we head out as often as we can afford to, and if we were independently wealthy, we would essentially just travel all the time.
If my mother ever reads this she will be severely annoyed: even though I visited her in April of 2012 and am going up again this May, she will be peeved that I flew up to Ontario in June of 2012 and didn't even tell her, let alone visit. So: sorry, Mom, but we flew up on Thursday night last June and left on Monday morning and the long weekend was packed with events planned and unplanned, and there was just no time.
The tickets we had for "Einstein on the Beach" were for the first of three performances, the night of June 8th. "Einstein" is only nominally an opera: it's sui generis, hypnotically repetitive music and dancing, trancelike singing of nonsense lyrics and numbers and solfége syllables, no characters nor plot. Four and a half hours of music and dance and acting and visual stimulation with no intermission: you're encouraged to come and go as you see fit, and a fair number of people saw fit to leave and not come back.
And this may give you an idea as to why: the image on that album cover is a giant glowing slab representing the edge of a bed, but also appearing throughout the opera in various guises. Late in the opera, the object appears on the stage horizontal, and then over the next seventeen minutes or so, to pensive music, it gradually, gradually arises to a vertical position, at which point it (I think) represents a spaceship which slowly takes off and vanishes into the rafters. (When the glowing bar attained its vertical position on the first night, an audience member shouted, "Hurray!", to the laughter of the entire audience.) If you have an appreciation, or even a tolerance, for that sort of thing, then you might be the sort of person who would appreciate "Einstein on the Beach".
Here's another test: Knee Play 3 ("knee play" because it's a joint between longer sections), a piece which is simultaneously classical in structure — it's basically an A-B-A-B aria for a small chorus — and hyper-modern, a staggeringly rapid-fire, pulsating string of numbers alternating with a lullaby of solfège syllables.
Before I saw it performed, even having listened to it hundreds of times over the last quarter century, I didn't see how it was possible for anyone to sing such music, but by god, they do it. "Einstein" has many moments of virtuosic performance like that: cruelly difficult keyboard music, an octet of dancers who spend twenty minutes — twice! — whirling across the stage in mathematical permutations, the second time accompanied by a violinist who plays the most fiendish scales and arpeggios.
We sat through the whole production without budging: I had taken the precaution of drinking almost nothing the entire day, and Jim has a bladder of steel. You couldn't have gotten me out of my seat anyway: I was transfixed, agog. This music that I had been listening to for more than half my life, and which I had never expected to see staged, was suddenly complete — it suddenly made sense. Jim enjoyed "Einstein", but I more than loved it: I was transformed by it, and my very first thought, after "That is the greatest thing I have ever seen in my entire life," was, "And I have to see it again."
And I did. I cancelled the plans we had made for Saturday night and got another ticket — once was quite enough for Jim, but he can entertain himself in Toronto for an evening — and went the next night, and it was even better, because I could understand the visual symbols and the connections between the various elements of the staging. (I also knew where the slow bits were — every opera has them — and could slip out a couple of times without missing anything crucial.) An even larger proportion of the audience left on the second night: a woman behind me said, "This is torture!" to her companion, and they were gone by the end of the second hour.
For the next three months after returning home, I was obsessed. I listened to scarcely anything besides "Einstein on the Beach" on my iPod: I have three different recordings (from 1978, 1984, and 1993) and have cobbled together versions of the opera composed of my favourite elements from each one — the 1978 "Knee Play 3", the 1993 "Dance 2" — including a 70-minute version that I listened to almost every day for a month and a half. Gradually I let other music into my ears, but I still listen to "Einstein" often. If I could have, I'd have gone see it again in one of the other cities it played in (still two dates to go!): but I'm thrilled that I got to see it at all, not once but twice, and I will remember it until the day I die.
My first exposure to the Persian poet Rumi was "Monsters of Grace" — his poems are the libretto for the arias and duets — and I guess my second was this Etat Libre d'Orange scent (you can listen to Tilda Swinton reading the poem that gives it its name, if you like).
Like This could also function as an imperative sentence: "Like this (or else)." And I wanted to, but I can't, because although it is tremendously interesting in the usual experimental, risk-taking Etat style, it's just not very attractive in the long run.
The basic structure of Like This is a gourmand, with a bright citrus flash at the top, an warmly edible, rose-accented heart, and a musky base. The trouble is that that edible middle consists mostly of spice-flecked pumpkin, an appealing fragrance in and of itself, but it goes on and on (it lasts a lot longer than four and a half hours) and never gets any lighter: after a short while it comes to seem thick and heavy and oppressive, to the point that you may feel as if you are drowning in an industrial vat of squash soup with rosewater in it.
As usual, lots of people seem to love this and maybe you will too. Maybe it's like "Einstein on the Beach", and you either get "Like This" or you don't. I don't: I wore it at least ten times trying to wrap my brain around it, and every single time I had to resist the urge to scrub it off. Enough.
As Serge Lutens had already done two roses before, the bright soprano Sa Majesté La Rose and the dark contralto Rose de Nuit, one might think he was done with the theme, but there is always room in the line for a rose soliflore, and La Fille de Berlin is it. (I am not sure what roses have to do with Berlin girls specifically – it seems to have something to do with 1920s style – but then I am often baffled by the names Serge applies to his perfumes, so perhaps we can assume it's a typically French flight of fancy.)
La Fille de Berlin starts out with a brilliant, fresh, wet tea rose, and gradually introduces a daub of honey, a grating of pepper, and what might be a wisp of incense. Otherwise it's just roses through and through, roses all the way down: they get darker as the scent evolves, but never truly dark. If I am not in a rose state of mind — hey, it happens — then it's just too much rose: but if I am feeling the roses, then it is charming, beguiling, endlessly enchanting as only roses can be. If anything could brighten a dark mood it's a sunshine-on-dewy-petals scent like this. I absolutely think a man could wear this: in fact, I think a lot of men ought to wear it instead of those drearily repetitive aquatics I can't get away from.
These pictures are slightly misleading regarding colour: the liquid is a startling magenta-pink that I suspect might stain clothing badly, so if you are the kind of person who likes to spray perfumes on your clothing, rethink that.
A while back, I wrote about a trip to Tokyo during which I briefly sampled the then-new Santal Majuscule. I mentioned that it reminded me a lot of Santal de Mysore: a commenter noted a resemblance to Jeux de Peau, and I said I thought there was some of that, too (partly because Jeux de Peau has a sandalwood note that seems very, or completely, Santal Blanc).
I finally got a sample of Santal Majuscule, and after a week of wearing it I can report that it smells essentially like a combination of Santal de Mysore and Jeux de Peau, in approximately a 20/80 mix, which means that it is very nice indeed —warm and lush and slightly strange, pure Lutens — but completely unoriginal: if you already own either of these scents, it's entirely unnecessary, and if you've tried them both but were unimpressed, then this one isn't going to convince you, either.
In 1980, when I was 17 and would see just about every movie that showed in the local two-screen cinema, I went to some cruddy horror movie so obscure and awful that I can't even remember what it was.* (It was the heyday of splatter movies and there were a lot of them out in the theatres.) The show I'd gone to see was a matinee: there weren't many people in the theatre, and so I noticed when an older woman, certainly in her late fifties and probably more than that, came in and sat down. I naturally assumed that she'd entered the wrong theatre and would leave as soon as she realized her mistake, but no: she stayed for the whole thing. And did I learn my lesson, that age is no indicator of a person's likes and dislikes? Oh, probably. Or possibly not.
Today at work, a young co-worker (Twenty? Maybe a bit younger?) asked me about my trip to Japan: since she is a fan of anime and manga and the like, she wanted to know if Harajuku was everything she'd read (it is). I mentioned Shibuya, and she said, "Oh! That's in a video game I play!"
"Yeah, I used to have it for my Nintendo DS, and at Christmas I bought it for my iPad."
"It's a great game!" I said. "Did you just think I was an old fogey or something?"
She didn't even pause. "Yeah, kinda."
So. Not even fifty, and I'm the old person that young people think is in the wrong cinema. I seem to give the impression of being stolid, conservative, set in my ways: it's not how I see myself, but it's how other people apparently see me. People are always shocked when they learn how many tattoos I have (four), because I evidently come across as the kind of person who could not possibly have even one.
Older people, it's fair to say, are often set in their ways. The young are willing to try anything because everything is still new to them, but older folks have already, if there's any adventure in their souls, tried countless things over the years: they've gradually discovered what they like, what works for them. When it comes to perfumery, I certainly know what I like, but I'm always willing to try something that seems like it might have a chance of being half decent, though one thing I do know: the fruity floral for women and the aquatic scent for men are done to death and nothing can ever make them new or fresh. Also oud.
Naomi Goodsir is an Australian milliner. No particular reason you should have heard of her if you're not Australian or a hat fan, I guess, but she launched two fragrances this past fall, so maybe you've heard of her if you're a perfume fan.
Cuir Velours, the name tells you, is a leather scent, and all I can say is, is it ever. I've worn a lot of leather scents over the years and if I've ever said that nothing new could be done with the genre, I take it back. Cuir Velours is marvellously new because it reads as two scents running in parallel: one is a soft suedey leather with suggestions of tobacco, incense, and rum — so masculine! — and the other is a dessert-sweet gourmand which starts out playfully fruity and gradually deepens through a creamy vanillic warmth and finally a chocolatey depth and richness. (There's immortelle in there, but it doesn't come across as floral, just edible.) It's a perfectly unisex leather, it lasts for twelve hours without hesitation, and it is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Not in love with that bottle, though, I have to say. Even if it weren't utterly boring, the scale is off. If you didn't know that was a 50-mL bottle in the photo, you'd think it was a miniature, with that big galumphing bottle topped off by a teeny little cap. Ironically for a milliner's perfume, it looks like the bottle is wearing one of those wee top hats
which may be amusing on a person (or may once have been — it's kind of played out by now) but is just stupid on a perfume bottle. I can't get on board with that. Good thing Cuir Velours the fragrance is so attractive.
*What I do remember is that the trailer for "The Shining"
showed before the feature, and at 17 I was not prepared for it at all: a boring title crawl, a static shot of an elevator, and some disturbing music of a sort I had never heard before may not seem like much, but when the elevator door opened fifty-odd seconds in and that thing happened, I was utterly horrified. It slammed me to the back of my seat. It stuck with me for a long time. What mere movie could compare to that?